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An Anatomy of a Mortar Attack: Global Trends

According to AOAV EVM data, between 2011-2020, 13,334 civilians were killed and injured by mortars, at least 513 were women and 1,390 were children. During the same period 1,458 armed actors were casualties of mortars. Each injurious mortar attack will claim an average of 8.5 civilian casualties and a single armed actor casualty, according to the patterns of harm highlighted in our data.

AOAV data shows that in the last decade 76% of mortar attacks took place in populated areas, 30% of these in urban residential locations. Indeed, military analysts regard mortars as “an essential weapon system” in Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). Over the last decade (2011-2020), when mortars were used in populated areas, 97.6% of those killed or injured were civilians. When used in unpopulated areas, AOAV recorded 101 civilian casualties – meaning that just 2.4% of those killed or injured away from towns and cities were civilians. 

In terms of civilian harm, most destructive mortar attacks happened at public gatherings, with an average 33.1 casualties per mortar attack.

Mortars are unpredictable and unreliable in the level of harm they cause, especially when used in populated areas. In AOAV’s dataset, the standard deviation for armed actor casualties from mortar attacks is 3.9 compared to 14.2 for civilian casualties. This means that there is much greater variation in the number of civilian casualties from mortars than armed actors. 

Mortars are inexpensive to manufacture and simple to operate, rugged, portable, light and versatile. Given their low cost, availability and ease of operation, mortars have found favour among armed groups such as guerrillas, non-state militias, and rebel groups. AOAV’s EVM reveals that 40% of all incidents of mortar harm in the last decade have been perpetrated by non-state actors. 20% of mortar attacks could be attributed to State actors, and the perpetrator status is unknown for 38% of incidents.

Over the past 10 years, Syria has been the country worst-affected by mortar use, accounting for 30% of all mortar attacks globally (see Figure 2). AOAV has recorded at least 478 separate incidents of their use in the country, accounting for 6,062 civilian casualties. The five countries with the most mortar attacks – Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India – accounted for around 72% of all mortar attacks worldwide. 

There is little consensus on the (in)accuracy of mortar systems. Despite technological advances, the majority of artillery and mortars are still categorised as area weapons and their inherent inaccuracies remain. Modern, guided mortars, however, are becoming more accurate: the 81-mm and 120mm Roll Controlled Guided Mortar (RCGM) have a circular error probable (CEP- the radius of a circle within which half of all the weapons fired are expected to fall or explode) of less than 10 metres. But these are not the mortars found in the majority of weapons arsenals; in 2015 the Small Arms Survey observed that no non-state armed groups had access to guided mortar systems, and they were in “limited service” in a number of states. 

The majority of mortars in service today are notoriously inaccurate: research on the standard 120-mm mortar found that it will land within 100m of the target only 50% of the time, there is a 38% likelihood of it landing between 160m and 480m away from the target. In populated areas, where 76% of recorded mortar attacks have occurred in the last ten years, this wide margin for error has devastating consequences for the civilian population. A mortar attack aimed at an armed base located on the peripheries, or worse, centre, of an urban area is far more likely to hit surrounding residences, commercial spaces, and critical infrastructure than it is to hit it’s target. Inaccuracy in weapon systems often leads commanders to fire multiple times, in order to increase the chance of hitting the target, increasing risk to civilians. 

Mortar accuracy ultimately depends on how the systems are used, by whom, their maintenance, and weather conditions. Calculations on the accuracy of a mortar also assume that the mortar is correctly aligned. In the theatre of combat – where mortars are frequently deployed by poorly trained, non-state actors – there is no such guarantee. Increased accuracy comes at a cost: while mortar systems can be adjusted to increase their accuracy “this is often not done in order to preserve some of the essential characteristics of the system: simplicity and speed”. Thus, weapon specifications and real-world deployment are two different things. As a weapons investigator explained to AOAV, “generally speaking, if there was a particular house you wanted to target, you would maybe fire five or six mortars and expect one of them to hit”.

Report continues:

Chapter 2: Case Study – Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Chapter 3: SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack